Paul Vallely: Clumsy maybe, but not sorry

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The Independent Online

Rowan Williams had two jobs to do yesterday when he stood up to address the Church of England's General Synod. He had to defuse the row over whether or not he should resign as the Archbishop of Canterbury. And he had to allay the fears he stirred in wider society with his suggestion that the adoption of sharia in the UK was unavoidable.

The first task was a relatively easy one, as was demonstrated by the intense warmth of the applause which greeted his arrival at the Synod. Looking uncomfortable, he waved his arms to quieten the clapping but had to do so twice before he began to speak.

Though there have been calls for him to go, they have been few and largely from traditionalists. Most of the Synod backed him and laughed readily at his joke quotation of Ronald Knox about a meeting characterised by heavy disagreement with a number of things that the speaker had not said. "We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions," Dr Williams said plainly.

Plain-speaking was essential to his second task: trying to give an account of what he thinks about the relationship of religious minorities to wider society – and doing it in language, unlike that of his original lecture, which was comprehensible to a person in the street.

He made a good start for a man who has been accused of intellectual arrogance, using a tone of apology and taking responsibility for any "unclarity" and "any misleading choice of words". It was clearly a mistake for him to have used a bogey word such as sharia, if all he was talking about were things such as "the legal recognition of certain kinds of financial transactions under Islamic regulation".

More significantly, he acknowledged the areas of difficulty with sharia – those Muslims who insist on the death penalty for those who convert from Islam, the suffering of Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries and discrimination against women. But he was essentially unapologetic about his central theme. In the past the law protected the consciences of religious believers, allowing doctors, for example, to refuse to perform abortions on the grounds of conscience. As our society becomes more secular, he said, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken for granted. Expressing concern about this drift is legitimate for a religious leader.

There are still serious concerns about the detail of what he said in his lecture. But there are two kinds of political storms: those that reinforce people in their pre-existing views, and those that change people's minds. Last week, it appeared that Dr Williams might have blundered into the latter. Increasingly, it appears, it may turn out to be the former.